By Becky Sindelar
April 18, 2017 — “Today the Society of Jesus, which helped to establish Georgetown University and whose leaders enslaved and mercilessly sold your ancestors, stands before you to say: We have greatly sinned, in our thoughts and in our words, in what we have done and in what we have failed to do,” Father Timothy Kesicki, SJ, said in public apology today to nearly 100 descendants of slaves gathered at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “The Society of Jesus prays with you today because we have greatly sinned, and because we are profoundly sorry.”
This morning’s Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope brought together descendants of the 272 men, women and children Jesuits enslaved and then sold in 1838, an effort to pay off debts and keep the nation’s first Catholic university afloat. The liturgy also included Bishop Barry C. Knestout, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington, and Fr. Robert Hussey, SJ, provincial of the Maryland Province Jesuits. Fr. Ron Mercier, SJ, provincial of the Central and Southern Province Jesuits; Fr. Brian Paulson, SJ, provincial of the Chicago-Detroit Province Jesuits; and Fr. Scott Santarosa, SJ, provincial of the Oregon Province Jesuits, were among the many Jesuits in attendance.
Fr. Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference, the organization that represents the Jesuits of the U.S. and Canada, spoke on behalf of the Jesuits of the U.S. “When we remember that together with those 272 souls we received the same sacraments; read the same Scriptures; said the same prayers; sang the same hymns; and praised the same God; how did we, the Society of Jesus, fail to see us all as one body in Christ? We betrayed the very name of Jesus for whom our least Society is named,” he said.
The public apology was just one of the recommendations in a September 2016 report from the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, established at Georgetown in 2015 to acknowledge and recognize the university’s historical relationship to slavery. The group’s recommendations also included giving descendants of the 272 slaves the same preferential advantage in the admissions process as the children of faculty, staff and alumni receive; renaming two buildings named for the Jesuits who arranged the slave sale; and creating an on-campus memorial to the slaves.
At the liturgy, intercessions for contrition and hope were offered, and Sandra Green Thomas, one of the descendants and president of the GU272 descendants association, also gave remarks.
“Their pain was unparalleled,” Green Thomas said. “Their pain is still here. It burns in the soul of every person of African-American origin in the United States. All African-Americans have hungered and thirsted for the bounty of America.”
“Penance is very important,” said Green Thomas. “Penance is required when you have violated God’s law.”
The service concluded with a blessing from Bishop Knestout, and those gathered sang “This Little Light of Mine.” Following the ceremony, Georgetown dedicated two buildings that formerly honored the Jesuit leaders responsible for the 1838 sale.
Isaac Hawkins Hall, formerly known as Mulledy Hall, was named for the first enslaved person listed in documents related to the 1838 sale.
Anne Marie Becraft Hall, formerly known as McSherry Hall, was renamed for a free woman of color who established a school in the town of Georgetown for black girls. The school was one of the first such educational endeavors in the District of Columbia. Becraft later joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the oldest active Roman Catholic sisterhood in the Americas established by women of African descent.
The day before the liturgy, the Society of Jesus hosted a private Mass and reception for Jesuits and descendants. In his invitation letter to descendants, Fr. Hussey spoke about his hope that the Mass would “foster a spirit of healing and continue to move us forward on a path of reconciliation.”
This was echoed by Fr. Kesicki in his homily today: “With the pain that will never leave us, we resist moving on, but embrace moving forward … with hope.”
Fr. Kesicki also asked for forgiveness, while acknowledging the Society has no right to it. “Justly aggrieved sisters and brothers: having acknowledged our sin and sorrow, having tendered an apology, we make bold to ask — on bended knee — forgiveness. Though we think it right and just to ask, we acknowledge that we have no right to it. Forgiveness is yours to bestow — only in your time and in your way.”